There’s a point in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman when our protagonist, the transgender Marina (Daniela Vega), sings along to Aretha Franklin’s ‘(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman’, which has just come on her car radio. In any other film this would be a moment of high camp, or at the very least, a heavy wink to the audience. Instead, it barely registers, so caught up are we in Marina’s story. If anything, this archness is Lelio asserting his distance from transgender narratives as we’ve come to know them.
Not that there are many to know. Of the limited exposure that trans people have received in film, two trends are discernible. First there’s the vibrantly grotesque, if politically quaint agit-prop of John Waters. Second is the subtly offensive phenomenon of cisgender actors using trans experiences for personal gain – see Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, or Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club. With A Fantastic Woman, Lelio bypasses this dichotomy altogether, offering something richer, more nuanced, and human.
Marina is a waitress and singer working in Santiago, in a relationship with her older partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes). When he dies suddenly from an aneurysm in his sleep, Marina not only has to deal with her grief but with a range of people who deny her the right to feel it. Whether it’s an invasive Sexual Offensives Unit making sure there was no foul play, or the prejudice of Orlando’s ex-wife and son, Marina faces obstacles that even the best of us would no doubt crumple before.
It’s to Lelio’s credit that he doesn’t use this scenario to craft a hackneyed tale of virtuous heroine versus malevolent society. Though often reprehensible (and the film does not shy away from transphobic violence), those who persecute Marina are never pantomime villains. Orlando’s ex Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) may be utterly dislikeable in her rejection of Marina, but she is also a mother trying to shield her family’s pain.
What makes Marina so fantastic a woman, in fact, is that she is so unexceptional a person. She, like everybody, undergoes the same devastation of everyday tragedies, and the eventual renewal that comes from having borne them. That said, Vega achieves something rare in contemporary film – she expands the boundaries for the kinds of performance one can expect to see, here of trans people who are, still, so poorly represented.
A Fantastic Woman isn’t perfect. Its fantasy sequences are somewhat misplaced, and Almodóvar has been exploring similar grounds for decades. Its sombre tones and meticulous acting, though, make it a bold yet subtle statement of the complexities of transgender life. There is more room for such stories, Lelio implies – so let’s start telling them.